Recent scholarship has demonstrated the significance of liturgy and eisphora avoidance within the Athenian economy (Gabrielsen, 1986; Cohen, 1992; Christ, 1990, 2006). Hiding wealth in aphanes form was an important private financial strategy practiced by a large sector of the Athenian population (de Ste. Croix, 1953), and became so widespread in the Classical period that it fuelled the rapidly growing nonagricultural spheres of the Athenian economy and the expansion of commerce in the Mediterranean overall (Engen, 2011). Despite the temptations to hide one’s wealth and avoid burdensome taxation by the state, I argue that this strategy was ultimately short-sighted since such wealth was deprived of state protection, and consequently was subject to embezzlement by corrupt guardians and business partners. As a result, the strategy of hiding one’s real wealth paradoxically depleted family wealth and prevented the long-term accumulation of capital that is characteristic of the modern economy.
Allowing wealth to accumulate unimpeded by government obligations was one of the most effective means by which savvy businessmen and estate managers were able to maximize the money-making potential of their property, and many of the fastest-growing fortunes known from ancient Greece were largely composed of aphanes wealth. Without national property records, individuals were able to obscure the full extent of their wealth by investing in aphanes ousia: non-agricultural assets which were difficult or impossible to track including money-lending, manufacturing, mining, and trade (Gabrielsen, 1986). However, even after one generation, it was extremely difficult to maintain an aphanes fortune, for the very fact that it was hidden from the state and therefore lacked the government protection of property rights which governed visible assets. Without government protection, guardians of a deceased businessman’s estate were free to embezzle the property either borrowing from the estate for their own money-making activities, or plundering it outright, as happened to the property of Demosthenes’ father (Dem. 27-31). He seems to have hidden his wealth during his lifetime (Davies, 1971, 128-9), and on his death he refused to allow his estate’s value to be revealed by being leased publicly (Dem. 28.7); instead he entrusted it to guardians to hide it from the state (Dem. 28.2), exposing it to depredation. Similarly, the money-lender Nausicrates died with a large aphanes fortune of at least eighty talents (Dem. 38.20), mostly in loans (Dem. 38.7). After his death, his brother/partner also declined to reveal its full value by leasing it publicly (Dem. 38.23), and also exposed it to embezzlement by guardians. Finally, the trader Diodotos left his aphanes fortune in the hands of his brother/partner Diogeiton, who likewise refused to disclose its full extent to its heirs, and pilfered much of the inheritance (Lysias 32).
Even when it was not hidden for the purpose of liturgy avoidance, wealth in aphanes form was still difficult to recover without effective government enforcement for overseas loans and invisible assets. Apollodorus, for example, experienced huge difficulties in tracking down the loans made by his father Pasion which were still outstanding at the time of his death (e.g. Dem. 49). Moreover, though a useful form of hiding wealth (Cohen, 1992), bank deposits were equally difficult to protect (Dem. 52; Gabrielsen, 1986, 102-3), and disputes over the property rights of bank funds could arise even when the depositor was still alive (Isocrates 17).
In conclusion, the attraction of aphanes wealth was only short-term, and it was difficult to maintain large accumulations of hidden capital for multiple generations. Though investment in non-agricultural spheres was increased, it seems to have been on an ephemeral and limited basis, especially in the fields of commerce and finance, whose funds were particularly subject to dissolution. Therefore, while an effective short-term profit-increasing strategy, hiding wealth may have been a barrier to the development of the types of large-scale financial and commercial fortunes which were instrumental for the emergence of the modern economy. Thus, short-term economically rational behavior ironically may have impeded long-term economic growth.